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HEALTH ALPHABET

Pain in the neck?

UMA KRISHNASWAMY

In most instances, neck pain, though more common in adult life, is not due to any serious disease or disorder.

BLOOMBERG NEWS

... but stress and a poor posture are some of the causes.

NECK pain is an increasingly common symptom seen in the urban populations of the world. While more common in adult life, particularly affecting the elderly, it can occur in all age groups.

It is a symptom triggered by many problems ranging from the minor to the major. Most instances are not due to any serious disease or disorder. The common causes are: headaches because of stress, migraine headaches, poor posture (arising from occupational habit), cervical spondylosis and various types of arthritis affecting the bones of the neck. Occasionally, neck pain may arise after a "whip lash" injury to the neck, sustained usually in road accidents.

Neck pain may be mild or severe, acute in onset, or gradual and chronic.

Headache, shoulder pain and pain radiating to the upper limbs may often accompany it. Associated symptoms such as stiffness, soreness and spasm of the neck and shoulder muscles may occur. If there is pressure on the nerves caused by the underlying problem there may be neurological symptoms such as tingling, numbness and so on, usually in the upper limbs. At times, where there is pressure on the spinal cord, there may be serious symptoms such as weakness of the legs, loss of bladder or bowel control.

Fortunately, such problems are relatively rare.

When neck pain is severe enough to interfere with one's life style or when there are associated neurological symptoms, it is best to have it assessed by a doctor. Other than a thorough clinical examination, additional investigations include an x-ray of the neck. In selected instances, where compression damage to the nerves or spinal cord is suspected, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be done.

In mild instances of neck pain, simple painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed. Self-help measures such as fomentation, cold packs, gentle massage with topical agents to relieve pain can be very soothing. Help may also be had through physiotherapy, advice on improving the posture, use of a soft surgical collar, advice on avoiding bending or stooping and on how best to carry weights. It is only in rare instances that surgery may be required. Surgery, for instance, may be required to relieve pressure on the nerves or the spinal cord, thus preventing nerve damage.

Alternative medicine offers much to relive neck pain. The Alexander technique (which improves the posture) and yoga (which improves strength and flexibility of muscles) are obvious examples. Herbal traditions exist around the world to soothe and comfort a painful neck.

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